This post is in response to “Engineering Politics”
by Christopher Csikszentmihalyi in the Sep/Oct 2007 issue of Good Magazine
I liked this article because it is why I got involved with the IEET in the first place. I think the author’s concerns are valid, I held similar ones myself, but his understanding of the effort to communicate to the general public comes up a bit short. (DARPA excluded from this, what they are doing, well, only those involved know). Christopher refers to the military’s drive to come up with “autonomous killing machines”, and while I don’t doubt that somewhat (always err on the side of caution), the military drives quite a bit of the emerging technologies that we have in our lives today. Hummer’s were not made for the suburbs or driving to the mall, they were made for combat, like Jeeps. The military had a need and the scientists, engineers and thinkers fulfilled that need. Once it became commonplace for the military and they worked most of the kinks out, they sell commercially, because some people fell the need to drive a ginormous tank of gas to take their kids to school.
I don’t necessarily have a problem with the military pushing for “autonomous killing machines”, ok, so I have a problem with the “killing machines” part. But after this summer, I have a more belief in the engineers behind it, and those that I don’t, again that’s why the IEET is around. It’s for the “Ethics and Emerging Technologies” to think and do for the technology and society, to talk about it openly and question things beforehand. Christopher writes that “Progressives need to get involved in research, design, and production” we are, the general public on the other hand, may not be interested in paying attention however.
For one, the websites that I have been too are full of open information; anyone who is interested can read about, say, what happened this weekend at the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence about the Singularity. It’s not a secret. Jamais Casico put out his transcripts from his speech on his blog, not just what he thought he would say, but what he actually said, because he went back to revise it and repost. This is open. After Transvision 2007, George Dvorsky took and wrote reflections on several of the speakers on his blog, and got quite a response to it all.
What I see is that there is an effort to disseminate what information is available to the public. If the public was interested they could’ve went to two very affordable conferences, Human Rights for the 21st Century (East Coast) and SIAI conference (West coast), and TV07 (Midwest, whoo!), which was more expensive, but worth the price for the celebrity speakers and numerous other notable presentations, not to mention other speeches out there that have been available across the country and globe from the fine people that are part of the think tanks and engineers of the emerging technologies. They travel a lot to give speeches and disseminate what they spend the rest of their time learning and knowing, primarily knowing. They are the doers, not those sent on their behalfs.
Christopher’s conclusion in the article is “But such changes will only take place if we work to connect models of a just society to specific technical directions. And if we find more progressives who aren’t afraid of a little math.” I’m honestly afraid of a little math, but that isn’t enough to stop me from caring about all of this and becoming involved. I disagree that it is the engineers alone who “determine whether a product abets democracy or totalitarianism, whether it treats its user as a worker or as a human being.” True they are the creators, but there is interest before the creation, in the conceptual stages when ideas are being tossed around, while the technology is in process of being created.
If anyone was interested in the engineering stages, they had opportunities this summer to get up to a microphone and question the creator of their choice, which was taken advantage of by several in the audience at TV07. Or, if these same questioners sat in the audience and listened to the speeches that were given and heard what I heard they may have a different understanding of those out there making this technology reality. What I didn’t hear was that the technology was being created to destroy ourselves in the future. And if this was the case, they put on a pretty good show of convincing me of the opposite. I heard that they were aware of this concern and talked about it and included it as part of the discussion. As a skeptic of “autonomous AI” I understand other’s fears of the technologies on a personal level, however, becoming an engineer isn’t happening for me in the near future, and this is what Christopher didn’t include in his discussion, options. That just knowing, being aware of the conversations, or in them, is also an option that may help change and affect the overall larger picture.
Don’t think me too harsh, I must applaud him for hopefully starting a dialogue for the magazine’s audience. The audience appears to be a younger and more open-minded group. This is the type of press that is both helpful and hurtful to communicators within the emerging technologies community. Referring to my above statement of information being out there and open, it happens mainly on the internet. Eventually, the discussion needs to be viewed by the general public which means off the net and into the mass media and popular culture, and I know that this may irk some of you, since it is an academic arena. Again, as someone, who is submersed in learning more about this daily, I need to learn more. The article tells others, unfortunately not that the IEET is out there, but that the technological evolution is.
Most people I speak with are not completely comfortable about all of this. It is unfortunate, but the only comfortable place there is to discuss is online, thus my urge to franticly type this. If I talked to anyone else there is an eye roll and a “uh-huh” complete lack of interest. It is troubling that the general public is not aware, but the technology is sneaking in to their daily lives. I read Our Molecular Future by Douglas Mulhall last year and was fascinated by the future technologies he discussed. And then I went to the dreaded Wal-mart last week, another topic for another day in itself, in the make-up aisle, what did I see?? Why the electronic paper I thought I wouldn’t see for quite awhile. It was on a L’Oreal or Revlon section (not too effective as I didn’t remember that part). I stood and stared and looked behind it for the plugs, cables, etc. and none. I was astonished that it was moving and just like a screen from a computer and as thin as a coin. I watched and no one else that I saw took pause, it was another ad in a sea of make-up.
I guess overall, the communication is out there, just not in the way that people notice, the technology is out there, again, just not in a way to notice, the problem is that when they do notice, as things will evolve, there will be questions. Maybe not on the small things that are the build-up to the greater technologies, but to the “autonomous killing machines” that, like the Hummer will eventually make to a commercial state where they can protect ones home. Or there will be questions when something happens in a negative manner, a mistake or a learning curve, if you will, like how we learned about the Hindenburg or Titanic. This is what causes me to be involved. Everything has trials and tribulations. I like to think however that, with people like those in the IEET, the discussion of the ethics will go out to the public before the commercialization.